Lives of the Caesars "They Will Pay On The Greek Kalends"


"They Will Pay On The Greek Kalends"

Context: Little is known of Suetonius, Roman scholar, biographer, and historian. His life spanned the end of the first century A.D. and the beginning of the second, and he was for a time private secretary to Hadrian. Augustus Caesar (63 B.C.–A.D. 14) was removed from the time of Suetonius by not much over half a century; thus the latter had access to all manner of personal information about the man. The picture he draws of Augustus is well-rounded and convincing. The emperor's personal habits are perhaps the most interesting part of Suetonius' account; and they may well have been most interesting to Suetonius, for he covers them in great detail. We learn among other information that Augustus was simple in his tastes and not fond of display; the dinners he gave were excellent without being extravagant. Expense was not spared, but there was a simple elegance, and those who attended invariably had a good time. He was a light eater and nibbled between meals; he drank very little because wine upset his stomach. He hated to rise early; he required little sleep and generally worked until late at night. He was a handsome man, according to Suetonius, but cared nothing for personal adornment. One of the qualities of this biography that make it vivid is the care with which Suetonius presents less complimentary facts. For example, Augustus' teeth were unsightly. He also suffered from bladder stones, sinus infections, and other ailments. Sensitive to temperatures, he dressed heavily in winter and suffered from heat in summer; unable to bear the direct sun at any time, he wore a broadbrimmed hat outdoors and traveled in a litter, usually at night. Augustus was an accomplished scholar who strove to speak and write as clearly as possible; he cultivated the use of slang and colloquial expressions whenever he felt they would help to accomplish this purpose. Finally, he was not without an ironic sense of humor (in fact, this quotation means "never," for the Greeks had nothing corresponding to the Roman Kalends):

. . . He looked on innovators and archaizers with equal contempt, as faulty in opposite directions, and he sometimes had a fling at them, in particular his friend Maecenas, whose "unguentdripping curls," as he calls them, he loses no opportunity of belaboring and pokes fun at them by parody. He did not spare even Tiberius, who sometimes hunted up obsolete and pedantic expressions; and as for Mark Antony, he calls him a madman, for writing rather to be admired than to be understood. Then going on to ridicule his perverse and inconsistent taste in choosing an oratorical style, he adds the following: "Can you doubt whether you ought to imitate Annius Cimber or Verianus Flaccus, that you use the words which Sallustis Crispus gleaned from Cato's Origines? Or would you rather introduce into our tongue the verbose and unmeaning fluency of the Asiatic orators . . .?"
That in his everyday conversation he used certain favorite and peculiar expressions appears from letters in his own hand, in which he says every now and then, when he wishes to indicate that certain men will never pay, that "they will pay on the Greek Kalends."